Press Must Be Tougher On FBI

By: Alicia Mundy


“Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you, if you’re young at heart — or if you are William Safire.” No, that wasn’t what songsters Johnny Richards and Carolyn Leigh wrote, but hey, they would have, if they had seen Safire’s May 20 column in The New York Times. The man known as one of the most cynical of Washington pundits produced a stunning homage to the FBI that seemed so out of character for the normally suspicious Safire that I called his office to ask what was happening. He had no comment.

However, my concern isn’t just about Safire’s perception, but about Washington reporters and book writers who have been suckered into praising the FBI over the years. Many of them defended the bureau after the Sept. 11 disaster. In fact, The Washington Post produced a puff piece the size of Iowa on the FBI’s official tip-keeper and his difficult job.

It’s a Washington disease: To cover the FBI, you have to be trusted by the FBI, so, for the most part, reporters don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them. A few reporters are now showing their fangs and growling, but the major papers that have impact on Capitol Hill — The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post — all need to exercise much more skepticism about the FBI. And skepticism, I thought, was Bill Safire’s stock-in-trade.

Last week, Safire discussed the now-infamous “Phoenix FBI memo” of July 2001 about Muslims with al-Qaida connections in American flight schools. But in explaining what did — or, rather, did not happen to that memo — Safire wrote that if the CIA had told the FBI that the president was interested in al-Qaida threats, “every FBI field office would have been instantly alerted and recent files searched; the troubling memo would have rocketed up the chain and hit the president’s desk the next morning.” Yes, the same morning that I would have woken up tall and blond.

At least Safire covered himself later with the line: “Fingerpoint away at the entire national intelligence flop.” But we can’t do that yet, Mr. Safire. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees were supposed to begin their investigations of the Sept. 11 warning pattern months ago. Does any reporter with serious experience covering the FBI and CIA really think it’s just politicos stalling the investigation?

If you want to understand the FBI, read “Lost in Translation: The Tale of the Tiny Tape,” from The Washington Post on April 14 — that will keep you awake. Or let me tell you about a real-estate agent in San Diego who, at the suggestion of a police officer I know, called the FBI in mid-August to report Arabs in his office building whose suite contained piles of hate literature and posters exhorting believers to kill Americans and Jews. San Diego was home to some of the hijackers. The FBI rep answering the terrorist “hotline” asked the tipster, “What do you want us to do about it? Call back if something bad happens.” The real-estate agent did — after Sept. 11. This time, an FBI agent was on his doorstep in hours. What worried the bureau agent most? He wanted the tipster to promise that he wouldn’t let anyone in the media know — it could be embarrassing.

Here’s another one. On Sept. 24, after certain information appeared in the Post, an FBI agent I know was called about a local police file containing information gathered during a Washington-area drug raid a few years earlier. That raid uncovered several illegal aliens from a nation that we now know was a training ground for al-Qaida. The police took the mens’ photos, got as much ID as possible, and made notes of their involvement in attacking Americans in North Africa, which they bragged about. The FBI agent said someone would be sent over to get copies of the police file, since the men were likely to still be in the area and “probably” aware of at least two of the hijackers.

Six weeks later, the police were still waiting for the FBI to come for the file. The bureau agent I know finally told me that she couldn’t get anyone from the FBI to get the file because “you know what it’s like here — our guys think that if they didn’t come up with the lead themselves, they ignore it.” It took the intervention of a federal prosecutor to finally retrieve the file in November. The prosecutor recently said that at least one of the men in the file appeared to have strong al-Qaida connections in the Washington area. And he wished he’d seen the file in September, before everyone went underground.

They’re little dots, but it’s a big pattern. Reporters and columnists may not want to rile the FBI, which is difficult to deal with on its best days. But the Washington pack needs to really start covering the FBI and stop covering for it.

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